Here the New York Mets go again, throwing money at a big-name free agent who they misguidedly convince themselves will solve their troubles. The Mets' issues aren't skin deep. They penetrate the dermis, plunge deep into the organizational body and end up at the heart, which is diseased with the sort of bad decision making that made a $66 million contract for an aging Jason Bay(notes) seem like a grand idea.
It would have been far more prudent to save the money they guaranteed Bay on Tuesday and find a 10-cent copy shop. There, somebody could have taken the transaction record on Bay's career, highlighted a pair of dates and illustrated the precise problem with the Mets today and, really, for the past decade.
The Mets were one of baseball's biggest spenders this decade. A look at their payroll and how they finished since 2000:
NL East finish
• March 24, 2002: Expos trade OF Jason Bay and RHP Jimmy Serrano to Mets for SS Lou Collier.
• July 31, 2002: Mets trade OF Jason Bay, LHP Bobby Jones and RHP Josh Reynolds to Padres for RHP Steve Reed and RHP Jason Middlebrook.
The first trade comes from the files of Omar Minaya, the Montreal general manager who sacrificed Bay – a young, power-hitting Canadian prospect – for Collier, a utility player who spent most of his Expos career in Triple-A. Minaya left Montreal in 2004 to take a new job, which he still holds: GM of the Mets.
The Mets gave up on Bay four months after they acquired him. The culprit was their GM at the time, Steve Phillips, who we now know has a propensity for ugly trades.
All of this highlights an endemic problem with the Mets that they try to cover with their payrolls, which provided among the highest cost per win in baseball this past decade: Their player-development system is a mess, and not the kind of mess a toddler makes at dinner. It is whole-cafeteria-food-fight bad, and in that respect, the coupling of Minaya and the Mets seems perfectly matrimonious.
Together, they have spent hundreds of millions to go backward. There was the ill-fated Pedro Martinez(notes) deal. And the on-deathbed-ill-fated contract for Oliver Perez(notes). They blew money ($25 million on Luis Castillo(notes)). They lavished it ($37 million in a closer-loaded market for Francisco Rodriguez(notes), with an easily attainable $17.5 million option). They spent themselves out of all the good will engendered by the tremendously club-friendly contracts for David Wright(notes) and Jose Reyes.
Wright and Reyes represent the only worthwhile thing the Mets can call their own. Since 1985, the Mets have signed and developed five players who later wore their uniforms in an All-Star game. Five. Wright, Reyes, Todd Hundley, Edgardo Alfonzo(notes) and Bobby Jones. Even Kansas City can say it has passed eight homegrown All-Stars through its system.
That Jones symbolizes the Mets' ability to develop pitching is indeed harrowing, particularly when examining their 40-man roster today. Only 12 of the players have been Mets their whole career, and just five pitchers: Mike Pelfrey(notes), Bobby Parnell(notes), Jon Niese, Eddie Kunz(notes) and Tobi Stoner(notes). Not exactly Seaver, Ryan and Koosman.
It's an indictment, and nothing can excuse it, not when the New York Yankees – the big-spending team that can at least put its money in the right places – places 23 homegrown players on its roster. Not all of them are stars. Some won't be anything more than trade fodder.
Still, it speaks to the team's recognition that baseball trades in a new currency – youth – and that the Mets always arrive late to the party of the latest trend. New York spent $3.1 million on the amateur draft in 2009. It was the lowest figure in the game. Ramping up their spending in Latin America – which has netted them their three top prospects, Fernando Martinez(notes), Jenrry Mejia and Wilmer Flores – doesn't excuse going skinflint stateside.
To compensate, they dole out dollars in the most inefficient market: free agency. Bay hits for power and he gets on base and he fits into a clubhouse well, and every team desires such a player. He's also 31. Defensive metrics and scouts agree he's a massive liability in left field. He was obviously blanching at playing for the Mets and in the massive Citi Field, or he wouldn't have spent more than two weeks spelunking for another offer before taking New York's.
More than anything, Bay is a hitter, and any impartial observer of the Mets realizes their greatest deficiency is not in the batter's box. The Mets, as of today, plan on trotting out a rotation of Johan Santana(notes) and four bolded, italicized, underscored TBDs. John Maine's(notes) arm is on the fritz. Pelfrey lost it last season. Perez is as reliable as an iPhone signal. Niese is a kid. The $66 million devoted to Bay – with an easily obtainable fifth-year option that would reportedly take the total value to around $80 million – would have made more sense in John Lackey's(notes) pockets.
How the Mets' threadbare pitching will survive the deep National League East is another question for Minaya to dance around. Give him this much: He is a survivor, somehow wrangling a contract extension out of the Wilpon family at the height of fans' disdain with him more than a year ago. In 2007 and 2008, the Mets twice collapsed in September, the enormity of the meltdowns overshadowing a misguided organizational philosophy. This year, with injuries compounding a poorly constructed roster, the Mets weren't merely a 92-loss, $149 million disappointment. They were an afterthought, the worst possible label in New York.
The Bay signing is reminiscent, in a way, of the last time the Mets reached these depths. Following a 91-loss season in 2004, the Mets brought in a past-his-prime Martinez for $55 million, then made the splash of the offseason by signing Carlos Beltran(notes) to a $119 million contract.
Things were changing for the Mets. They were starting a new TV network that would bring in tens of millions in revenue. They wanted to challenge the Yankees, the kings of the city, and recapture the glow from the 2000 World Series before it wore off. It didn't matter that they were Beltran's second choice, that he wanted to replace his idol, Bernie Williams(notes), in center field at Yankee Stadium. Beltran was theirs, and at the news conference announcing his signing, he made a statement that relegated the Yankees' Randy Johnson(notes) presser to second banana.
"I call it the New Mets," Beltran said, "because this organization is going to a different direction, the right direction, the direction of winning."
The New Mets never arrived. They were on the cusp of the World Series in 2006 and couldn't capitalize. The Santana trade didn't reinvigorate them. Scant reinforcements from the farm system arrived. Signings blew up. And ultimately, nothing changed.
They're just the same old Mets. The same old mess.
- The Mets
- Jason Bay